A right to decent housing

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Grenfell Tower is a desperate tragedy. It brings focus to the reality of housing issues for those with least choice.

Why is it that we need to have tragic large-scale loss of life to bring this focus?

There is nothing worse than avoidable loss of life: not a natural disaster, not an accident, nor a malicious attack. The fire at Grenfell was an outcome, predetermined by human decision making.

The calls for inquiry, investigation, explanation and blame are inevitable, but from my career in housing and development and associated public and private decision making - spanning five decades - my first thought is that it is unlikely that any single individual, organisation or decision will be to blame.

Hindsight will allow us to see blindingly obvious errors and poor judgements and we will reflect on these at length. If there have been deliberate failings, negligence must be punished.

Notwithstanding, decision making is rooted among other things in a balance between cost, effectiveness, desirability and preference. In many decisions there is a balance to make between cost and risk. What this latest tragedy at Grenfell Tower highlights is that the balance for decision makers must weigh more towards personal welfare, wellbeing and safety than to cost. This is a public expectation and the outcry is unified here because it appears not to have been the case, not just at Grenfell but across the country.

Multi-tenure high quality family homes

Political choices and dogmas play a significant part when we account for responsibility. This literally cuts across all aspects of public funded and influenced strategies for schools, hospitals, prisons and of course housing. The newspapers have been full of editorial about the challenge now to those Brexiteers who call for less regulation. We will now be much more mindful of the extreme results such deregulation might bring.

A matter of housing

In the days before the fire, the commentary of the housing crisis in the broadsheets was mostly about supply. It has been about challenges to the Green Belt and how we could possibly achieve the target of one million new homes in five years - a target that itself has been with us for a decade or more and against which we consistently fail to deliver.

Adding to housing issues of the day, we should also include the failure to deliver the housing market renewal initiative, failure to establish a proper new towns strategy and failure to properly plan for major estates regeneration and renewal.

There is a level of social unrest building within the rented housing sector, exacerbated by an overheated housing market in the South East in particular, where residents believe regeneration means their replacement. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 really doesn’t get close to addressing these issues.

We need a cross-sector housing strategy, which builds back credibility quickly and provides much needed homes. This will need a release of land that unlocks building opportunity, for public reprovision as much as home ownership. We need a purposeful commitment to the new garden towns and villages, a renewed strategy for building homes people need in our cities and a proper 30 plus year look at the state of all our older housing stock.

It isn’t just about policy and legislation. Government must take a much greater responsibility in delivering the solutions, which must mean intervention, organisation and public spending. It’s what is being defaulted to now, in any event, as we retrofit the botching of failed tower block refurbishments.

The idea that housing is a private sector supply problem or indeed a town planning problem is deeply flawed. I grew up in a new town and was led to believe that decent housing is a basic human right. For me it has to be a key component of a sustainable 21st century society’s infrastructure.

Good quality affordable family homes

What we have is a housing crisis that is as big as it has ever been, and yet as a Government priority it remains way down the pecking order. Before Grenfell, the housing minister’s position was one of the last to be announced. It has been a role with little influence, it seems. We need to see the status and funding associated with housing the nation as a political priority. Decent housing for all should be a right that we all back and pay for. The consequences of not making it so will impact on us all.

This article was first published in Placemaking Resource.

6 July 2017